To a generation now mourning the passing of actor Ken Osmond — aka, Eddie Haskell — the best moments on TV’s “Leave It to Beaver” always involved the mischievous Eddie trying to sneak a fast one past the grownups.
“Oh, hello, Mrs. Cleaver,” he said one time to Beaver’s mom, June Cleaver, played by Barbara Billingsley. “My, that’s a lovely sweater you’re wearing. My mother has one just like it. Of course, hers is cashmere.”
Eddie always wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to play wise-ass with the other kids. But he also wanted the grownups to buy into his sycophantic flattery, even as the whole world could see he was overplaying it.
After all, who sucks up in such an obsequious manner, besides maybe Mike Pence?
Eddie’s the role model.
Osmond died the other day, at 76, from pulmonary disease. It’s been several decades since he was a supporting player on the “Beaver” series, but a couple of generations remember him still.
Bits of the subversive Haskellian conversation linger in the air, their pure teenage B.S. defying the passage of time.
“Gee, Mrs. Cleaver, your kitchen always looks so clean.”
“Oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for young Theodore to accompany us to the movies.”
“Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I’m gonna … oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver.”
How good was this character? Good enough that even though he was only a supporting player, TV Guide placed Eddie Haskell at number 20 on its list of the top 50 TV characters of all time.
Good enough that 57 years after the original “Beaver” series left the air, it’s still the mention of Eddie that provokes not only the biggest smiles but the nods of recognition. We’ve all known that teenage kid, and secretly we understood the part of him that was inside so many of us.
Keep in mind that “Leave It to Beaver” ran from 1957 to 1963. Those were the last-gasp years of the real 1950s. The Sixties — as we recall that period of political, social and cultural upheaval — didn’t really begin until after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
All hell broke loose at that point. But before that? The ‘50s generation that grew up watching “Beaver” was the most compliant and straitlaced bunch of goody two-shoes in history, and the era’s bland, white-bread TV shows reflected it.
Can anybody remember the kids on “Father Knows Best” ever talking back to their parents? Or Donna Reed’s kids acting out or mouthing off? The youngsters didn’t even rebel on “Ozzie and Harriet,” and they had a genuine rock ‘n’ roll star in the cast!
Next to all that blandness, Eddie was at least testing the waters. He was the original rebel, writ comically, always looking for an angle to play. Every neighborhood in Baltimore — hell, in America! — had at least one Eddie, just waiting for the adults to leave the room so everybody could start cracking wise.
Lots of kids want to fool the grownups, but Eddie made us laugh at him because he was so open about it — and so deadpan bad at it.
“My, that’s a pretty dress, Mrs. Cleaver,” Eddie said.
Mrs. Cleaver walked away, muttering to herself, “I just don’t trust a 13-year-old boy who’s that polite.”
(The only other TV character of the ‘50s capable of such ostentatious sucking-up was the great Sgt. Bilko on “The Phil Silvers Show,” when he had to work some con on poor, overmatched Colonel Hall, who never did catch on.)
But Eddie Haskell was such a patent fraud that many people, years later, bought into the urban legend that he’d become the legendary porn star John Holmes. After all, it seemed a reasonable career choice for Eddie.
Ken Osmond hated that rumor. By then, he’d joined the Los Angeles Police Department. He must have been tired of getting caught by the adults in his sheer adolescent phoniness.
“You look as though you just walked down a runway,” he told Mrs. Cleaver one time.
“Eddie?” replied the always demure Mrs. Cleaver.
“Cut the crap.”
He never did. And he did it so openly that it cracked up a generation.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).